Artists in survival mode as market crumbles

As galleries cut back and sales plummet, many artists are struggling to scrape by with odd jobs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BY ALL ACCOUNTS but one, Fred Cray is a successful, thriving multimedia artist. He studied at Yale University's prestigious graduate school and has several solo exhibitions under his belt. He is the recipient of the Pollock-Krasner grant, and in 2003, he won a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. He lives in Brooklyn, in a three-story house with a rooftop garden, and spends up to 10 hours a day in his studio.

Mr. Cray is represented by a well-regarded Manhattan gallery, and his work – when it sells – still commands a substantial price. But like many artists, he now lives in a state of alarm, threatened on one hand by the deepening recession and on the other by the cratering art market. The mood, he says, is "worse than anything I've ever experienced before. The severity of it is enough to induce panic."

Last week, the National Endowment for the Arts released research showing that artists are now unemployed at about twice the rate of other professional workers. Approximately 129,000 artists were out of work nationwide in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the report – up 63 percent from the same period in 2007. The NEA estimated that the figures might have been worse had thousands of artists not left the workforce due to retirement, a desire to pursue outside opportunities, or general discouragement. And the forecast for the next few years is no brighter. Sunil Iyengar, the director of research and analysis at the NEA, said unemployment was a "lagging economic indicator," and that the figures can still rise even months or years after a general economic recovery. Artist unemployment, for instance, did not reach its zenith until two years after the 2001 recession, when the markets had regained their strength. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Sunil Iyengar's name.]

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"There's a reason for the severity of these numbers," Mr. Iyengar said, referring to the NEA report as a whole. "Artists are entrepreneurs in terms of their employment character. They're the equivalent of small businesses – they require a lot more investment up front. They're already in a pretty precarious situation. And in a market like this, artists are really hit pretty hard."

Meanwhile, arts institutions across the country are struggling to stay afloat. According to USA Today, theaters from Utah to Kentucky are resorting to public pleas for financial assistance. In January, the Los Angeles Opera laid off 17 employees; that same month, the city's Museum of Contemporary Art announced plans to reduce staff by 20 percent. Here in New York, the world-renowned Carnegie Hall sliced its performance schedule by 10 percent.

"It's getting really tough for everyone now," says Richard Burrows, the director of Arts Education for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is fighting against looming budget cuts. Complicating the situation is the widespread and often drastic winnowing of grants and fellowships – long the life raft of many a starving artist. In Michigan, for instance, the state has announced plans to eliminate almost all the arts and culture grants for 2010.

In interviews this week with the Monitor, artists expressed dismay at the situation and worried that the government was not doing enough to halt the economic slide. Jonathan Kemp, a musician living in Brooklyn, calls the unemployment figures "a serious problem." In a way, he says he is "embracing" his own joblessness, and intends to focus even more intently on his music. Still, he adds, he feels more than a little disillusioned.

Cray, the Brooklyn artist, says his art attracts about the same level of interest it always has. But the occasional sale isn't enough to keep him solvent, and over the past few months, things have gotten progressively worse. Not long ago, Cray's wife died, and in order to pay the medical bills, he took out a second mortgage on his house. For a while, some savvy investments helped keep him afloat, but then the stock market plunged, and he lost most of that money.

As a younger man, Cray would pick up the slack by working as a decorative painter. Now, offers have almost vanished, and when he does land a gig, it is usually only for a day or so at a time. He thinks regularly about the possibility of the bank foreclosing on his home, and on a warm day recently he was on his way to north Brooklyn, where he planned to give a home improvement survey. The pay was $100.

Cray said he agreed to speak to a reporter because he wanted his fellow artists to know that they weren't alone. "I know there's a lot of fear out there," he says. "I know other people are feeling that. I also know that we can get through these difficult times. We've done it before."

Others aren't so optimistic. For Christopher Brumfeld, a New York designer, the woes of 2008 were "just a glimpse." Freelance work, he says, is drying up, as companies keep their work in-house, and "[overload] their salaried designers."

Hector Perez, a graphic artist living on Manhattan's Upper West Side, says his work has "evaporated. It's a catastrophe," Mr. Perez says. "Clients are less willing to negotiate – a lot of people are willing to work for almost nothing. I know a lot of artists who have left the business and I'm seriously considering it, too."

But Jesse Schoem, an actor living in New Jersey, argues that artists have always soldiered through less than ideal economic climates, working when they can find work and waiting when they can't [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Jesse Schoem as an actor living in New York. He lives in New Jersey]. "It's not like things have gotten so markedly worse," Mr. Schoem says. "It's more like that they're always really bad, until you get famous."

Furthermore, laughs Cray, it's not like artists have much choice in the matter. "The highlight of my life," he says, "is my time in the studio. I can't imagine doing anything else." Besides, he adds, "these up and down cycles? Sometimes they're the best thing that could ever happen to an artist. They make you stronger."

Gloria Goodale contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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